The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Hero image

Jo McCulty

Designing a game-changing tool for young patients

A virtual-reality gaming system introduces new worlds to children who face frequent medical treatments, reducing stress at key moments.

A nurse leads the young hemophilia patient to a treatment room at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Awaiting him is a specially designed virtual-reality headset, which presents him with animated characters in colorful worlds that he can control with simple head movements and regulated breathing. His arms are free for the needle sticks and infusions he has endured for years, although never with such indifference.

This innovation began several years ago with a chat. The players were Dr. Amy Dunn, professor of pediatrics in Ohio State’s College of Medicine and director of pediatric hematology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and Jeremy Patterson ’00, then leader of user experience technology at the hospital’s research institute. Their discussion centered around the fact that the use of virtual reality in health care had not, to that point, taken into consideration a child’s size or skill level.

“It was the first time I learned of needle phobia, and I was fascinated,” says Patterson, also an adjunct faculty member in Ohio State’s Advanced Computer Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD). “I had heard about virtual reality in treating PTSD. I recognized needle phobia as a form of PTSD, so instead of treating it after the fact, I thought we could manage it by distracting the patient.”

Rob Strouse, a user experience specialist at Children’s, joined the conversation and created more than a dozen customized cardboard headset prototypes. Former ACCAD students Alice Grishchenko’17 MFA and John Luna ’17 MFA served two-year internships at the hospital, where they designed interactive 3D games to be soothing and engaging.

Nationwide Children's Hospital

The system, now known as Voxel Bay, has received two thumbs up from children ages 6 to 18, their parents and medical staffers. Grants and a clinical study, published by JMIR Serious Games, pushed the venture forward. To bring it to more families, the team needed a company through which to license the intellectual property, and LittleSeed was born. Via LittleSeed, the pilot program will expand to encompass five additional children’s hospitals.

“Our goal was to break boundaries with virtual-reality games, with every aspect providing medical and therapeutic value,” Patterson says. “The beautiful thing is that children only see the entertainment value and get to have fun.”

Patterson is on a team with colleagues from the College of Social Work and Wexner Medical Center testing the benefits of virtual reality for people at the other end of life’s journey. They hope to nurture empathy among caregivers of dementia patients by enabling them to experience short-term memory issues and time and place disorientation.

Dunn says the study has made her a better physician who is more engaged during her patients’ treatments. “There were years of work and back and forth, with the entire team pouring their heart and soul into improving how children experience medical care,” she says. “I was excited and proud of our results.”